Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Secret Lives of Secretaries (Blowjob Edition)

As much as I downplayed my former job as being that of a "glorified admin," I realize now that I was not really an admin and I definitely wasn't a secretary or a receptionist, even though I did cover the phones sometimes when the receptionist was away at lunch. No, the bullshit of job titles aside, I was definitely a project assistant. I was treated like a human being. My boss brought me coffee and I went out to lunch with the guys on occasion.

I was not a secretary.

The strange, exhausting thing about being a secretary is that you have to be nice to everybody and pretend that you like them and that they're all smarter than you because they make gobs and gobs of money (if the guy upstairs is making $238 million, I can only guess what all these VPs are making. His executive assistants alone are all making six figures). I don't mind presenting a pleasant front to company guests - they send all of the guests up to us first, and most of them haven't done anything really inane and I only see them once or twice, so you know, I can cut them a lot of slack and be helpful. Afterall, I recognize that that's my job.

The kicker is when you have to be uber pleasant to regulars who aren't pleasant, who do and say stupid things, don't clean up after themselves, and have expectations that you must be pleasant under all circumstances. I have yet to run into particularly nasty individuals - most people are very good about avoiding being assholes - but there are slick assumptions under some very polite requests, and I try not to let it get to me. This is a temp job, after all. This isn't my life, it's just my rent check.

Nell had her 30-day review with our supervisor, who is more than a little unstable, and was told that she needed to be more "professional." She needed to smile more, because so long as she had a smile on her face, all her words would come out pleasant! (seriously) She needed to make sure that whoever she spoke with had the last word. She was not to argue with anyone, whether they were executives or admins or project managers.

It is, indeed, our job to be nice to people. To make them feel good about themselves.

So I make small talk with everyone. I look up from my book or my writing and smile at everyone. I pretend pleasantness, but I don't take any of it seriously and I don't care if anyone complains about me having my nose in a book. There are a million jobs just like this one.

And after a couple of months of this, you start to get to know a lot of people; you deal with a lot of people, and some of them you do come to genuinely like, of course, but it occurred to me yesterday as I stepped off the elevator after work and one of the marketing guys said hello and wished me goodnight, that there's a far better reason for the "powerful guys marry secretaries and stewardesses" stereotype that Maureen Dowd was nattering on about last year than "all men are just whiny assholes who want mothers."

The people in these positions as secretaries, receptionists, admins, assistants, are primarily women, and as women who fill these positions, they're required to be nice to *everybody.* You have to smile and make small talk with everybody who comes in the door, and you know, outside of work, smiling and making small talk with strangers is often seen as flirting (I'm reminded of when Wal-Mart moved into the German market and had to discontinue its policy of having Wal-Mart employees smile at customers, because men read this as an invitation, and the women were getting hit on and harassed at an alarming rate).

And though there are certainly people I genuinely like, I can see a lot of people who would construe the pleasant niceness I must give to everyone as actual pleasure at seeing them. You can be chatty with secretaries and admins. They *have* to be nice to you. The kicker is that a LOT of people just assume that we're genuinely this way and not doing it as a part of our job. Those are the clueless people who assume that we'd make great helpmeets at home in addition to at work.

There are certainly far hotter women in this company that those of us at the reception desk, but they're not required to be quite as nice, and yes, being in a far more high powered position than, say, secretaries, hitting on them and being rejected would probably be more humiliating than hitting on a secretary and having her pleasantly laugh it off.

The secretaries and the admins are pleasant people you interact with everyday who aren't in competition with you over your job. They're nice, safe, cozy people, and when roles like these become so commonplace as to be invisible, I guess you just assume that that's who they really are in real life. And sure, maybe a lot of them are. But it doesn't always work that way, and being a part of the underworld of secretaries and admins, I'm also in a position where I'll see the brutal side of all the admins, too, who refuse flower deliveries from admirers and make faces at puerile requests from execs.

A group of guys walked through the reception area the other day, and one of them said, "Have my girl talk to your girl." The hierarchy is a funny thing, perhaps not so much that it exists but that the people at the top have the privilege of not even bothering to notice that it's there, and there's a whole other soap opera among their admins and assistants going on, a whole nother power play underneath theirs. But there's really no reason for them to care: we're all just pleasant people who cater their meetings and clean up after them, and so long as our power struggles are for jobs they don't want, they're not important enough to notice.

What's important is that we're pleasant, and always put a smile our faces, so that everybody can pretend we're happy to see them.

3 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Meghan said...

I hated being a receptionist for exactly that reason. I just sat there vibrating with frustration.

jeff said...

People who work retail get this, or something similar, too--though I imagine that more people recognize that retail people are paid to be nice more than they recognize that secretaries are paid to be nice.

When I worked in a store in a mall when I was 22 or so, I had a parade of lonely people coming by to chat with me almost every day, most of them regulars.

Ismone said...

People were always feeding me when I was a receptionist. And asking me out. But my boss was great (I wasn't allowed to read and wasn't supposed to play minesweeper) but as long as I handled the phones and did some data entry she went out of her way to say she appreciated my work. I think my experience was different because most of my coworkers were in manufacturing or engineering, so they didn't have admins., which I think made us relate more as equals.